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A Mechanic of Time: Lake Bluff’s Resident Clocksmith

David Lee shares the meaning behind a dying art

“I get to work with a piece of history,” David Lee, owner of The Clockworks, Lake Bluff's timepiece shop, said. “Some clocks are 200 or 300 years old. The frustration is that you can’t talk to them and find out where they’ve been and what they’ve seen.”

Fortunately, Lee, almost 70, can sometimes learn those stories from patrons who bring in their grandfather clocks, watches and music boxes for maintenance and repair. “Sometimes their stories are tenuous, relative to what they know about clocks,” He said. 

“Someone told me they had a clock that was their grandfather’s, brought over from Holland. Well, I looked at it and told them it was made in Connecticut. It must have been brought to Holland where their grandfather purchased it and brought it back here. Sometimes we can help fill in the details of these family clocks.”

The Spirit of The Clockworks

Cecilia Rivera, Lee’s assistant, has worked with him for eight years. “It’s a mellow job, you have to have a lot of patience,” she said. “The people (of Lake Bluff) are very friendly. Everyone passes the shop walking their dogs.”

The Clockworks, 34 East Center Avenue, has its own canine mascot, a 10 year old golden retriever named Spirit. Spirit lounges around and gets a treat every time someone enters the shop—not a bad life for a sweet old dog.

“David says when he dies, he wants to come back as a North Shore dog,” Rivera said. “(Lee) is nice and very smart—he’s very fun, he jokes around and smiles. To me, he’s like a father figure.”

“It’s a dying profession,” Rivera said. “There’s not a lot of clockmakers left.” Despite that, demand for clock smiths has not dwindled. “We have a huge backlog. It’s seven to eight months before you get your clock back. There’s a huge demand. We get clocks from all over the country.”

Clockworks’ typical patronage consists of middle-aged or older people, some avid collectors and many seeking maintenance, repair or conservation. Lee strives to run an honest business and treat customers fairly. If it’s something he can fix in a glance, he won’t even charge for it in hopes that the customer will return.

“People will come in and say, this watch was my grandfather’s and I want to get it fixed no matter the cost,” Lee said. “Well, I will not go ahead and fix it until I’ve appraised it and you tell me to do it.

“Every morning, I stand in the mirror with a razor in my hand, and I don’t want to think, ‘Should I slit my throat?’ Life’s too short to go around ripping people off. We work hard at making friends of customers.”

The Clock That Wouldn’t Fit

Lee has lived in Lake Forest for 40 years. A widower, he was married 44 years, has three daughters and six grandchildren. “None of them have any interest in this,” he said.

Lee’s interest in clocks started when he was 10. 

In 1951, Lee's grandfather, a retired lawyer, moved to Florida. He owned an eight and a half foot tall grandfather clock, but the ceilings in the new Florida house were too low for the clock to stand upright. He decided to give the clock to Lee’s father.

“My dad set it up in the living room, but we found that it didn’t work. Every night after dinner, my dad and I would get up on ladders on both sides of the clock and poke around looking for something that wasn’t right.” One day, his father took the clock downstairs and somehow fixed it. 

“I was interested because it was something I got to do with my dad,” Lee said. He grew up, went to college and still had an interest in clocks. To learn his trade, Lee took many classes and reads incessantly. 

He was mentored by a friend of his father’s, Kenny Williams, who owned a clock shop in Evanston.

“I brought him the things I’d broken and he’d show me how to fix them,” Lee said. “My first clock was a Big Ben alarm clock. I quickly learned that you don’t take a clock apart without taking the springs out, or the parts go flying across the room.”

After 20 years in the family business, industrial supplies, he decided there had to be more to life. He was a regular customer of Clockworks, opened by Barry Caris in 1972, and bought the shop from Caris’ partner. He's had the shop for over 35 years. “I’m very fortunate to turn an avocation into a vocation,” Lee said.

A Clock and Its Owner

Lee believes the reason people put so much value on clocks, passing them down in families or forming a bond with a favorite watch, is the symbiotic relationship between a clock and its owner.

“The clock is worthless if the owner doesn’t wind it,” Lee said. “You’re involved with it on a weekly basis. People who have involvement with a clock will have kids who see dad winding his watch every Sunday. I think it’s the involvement with the operation of it.”

He added that seeing dad wearing that favorite watch every day creates sentimental value. “If it’s been part of your family visually for a long time, you’d want to have it around.”

Lee wears a small 10 karat ring which belonged to his father’s great aunt.

“It’s not worth much of anything, but I never saw my father without this ring,” Lee said. When his father passed away, Lee took the ring, letting his sister keep the grandfather clock from the living room. As much as he loved the clock, it was his father’s memory that meant the most to him.

The Clockworks is open Tuesday – Friday from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and Saturday until 4 p.m. For more information, visit The Clockworks’ website or call 847-234-7272.

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barry August 25, 2012 at 04:04 AM
WOW.....has anyone tried to get someone to change a battery in a wrist watch lately? First your lucky if you can find someone.....second, you're lucky if it runs for 6 months after . Hats off to anyone that can FIX.....instead of replace....anything.

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